A Primer on Makers’ Marks for Japanese Antiques, Art & Collectibles

By David Pike, on Jul 23, 2012

Tomobako are boxes that have a red seal and are also usually signed with a maker’s signature and often include a short description of the item. These boxes with the markings and signatures act as a sort of “certificates of authenticity” for Japanese antiques.

Signatures and marks on Japanese antiques offer the best chance to identify and place a piece in a historic timeline. Since it is often possible to place the antique in context through makers’ marks or other identifying signatures, they also offer the best chance to place a value on any particular piece. However, while an identifying mark offers a framework for value and origin, the marks just as often mislead.

The Chinese have been copying and signing Japanese work for many hundreds of years, so have the Japanese. Although you will sometimes find works wherein Japanese makers copied non-Chinese works, the number of these pale in comparison to Japanese copies of Chinese works. For more than 1,300 hundred years, Japanese artisans have copied work that arrived as gifts from China.

In later times, from the early 17th century through to the end of the 19th century, the copying was done as a means to sell the work. Before mass mobility, the way works moved around for the average buyer—i.e., the way individuals came into contact and bought new items—was through traveling sellers. The sellers would get the goods from an intermediary or directly from the manufacturers and then head out to sell them. Works marked by whatever maker was in fashion would always bring a higher price, no matter where the piece was made. This fact now brings headaches for 21st-century collectors trying to figure out what is genuine and what is in fact Chinese-made ware marked Japanese or Japanese-made ware marked Chinese.

The tomobako should be a close fit in size to what it holds. If the piece is ceramic, metal or lacquer the box should be about one centimeter larger than the diameter of the piece on all sides.

One major difference with other traditions when looking at Japanese signatures is the tomobako. Tomobako are boxes that have a red seal and are also usually signed with a maker’s signature. They will also have a short description of the item. The antique in the box and the description on the box should match. The tomobako should be a close fit in size to what it holds. If the piece is ceramic, metal or lacquer the box should be about one centimeter larger than the diameter of the piece on all sides. This isn’t a strict rule, but the box should fit the piece. For scrolls and other rolled works, the same general rule applies.

The tomobako often has other writing on it, sometimes inscriptions by well-known people, oftentimes priests or previous owners.

The value placed on a tomobako is difficult to overstate. Although they may look like they are in dire need to be replaced, they are, in fact, a document of provenance. Such a document shouldn’t be thrown away. If the tomobako becomes so worn as to lose its ability to function—i.e., protect the antique—many times a second box will be made to protect the inner tomobako.

Tomobako usually come with pieces that are made by an identifiable person or, if the piece is from before the mid-18th century or so, it will usually contain a piece that has been identified as from a period and location. On the older pieces that have a period and or location attribution, the person that has signed the tomobako has staked his reputation on the attribution. If the attribution is incorrect, it reflects on the education of the person that first attributed the piece. In this way, tomobako are very similar to “certificates of authenticity.” If a large auction house or museum issues a certificate of authenticity, most people will take that as a guarantee that the piece is authentic, as far as the scholarship stands at the time of the issuance. The piece is priced accordingly. There is a premium for someone staking a reputation on authenticity. It is the same with a piece that has a tomobako.

A tomobako that has been signed and impressed with a seal.

Another signed tomobako.

This tomobako was signed on the lid.

Pieces without tomobako aren’t any less authentic but you won’t be paying for the “authenticity certificate.”

Types of Signatures
Like with any country, the type of signature you find will depend on the media.

On paintings, scrolls and ukiyo-e (wood blocks or paintings), you will often find a “rakkan,” a seal impression in cinnabar. The ink is made from a base of cinnabar and silk or a vegetable base. The name in the rakkan is more times than not a name only used for signing a piece; a no deplume the artist has taken for professional use.

A scroll with a rakkan from the Momoyama era.

An unusual front-impressed rakkan.

In lacquer work, signatures don’t always tell you who made the piece. It can just as likely be the name of a line of makers, like an Armani suit isn’t actually made by Georgio Armani himself.

In ceramics, there are many types of signatures you will see again and again. Japanese-made ceramics signed with Chinese reign names are very common.

Metal works will mostly have a signature that is cast into the piece when it is being forged.

Signatures on scrolls tend to be both brush-signed and rakkan. There are often a number of rakkan on a single piece. The signed portions of the scroll—the handwritten portions—usually are in vertical form, with the rakkan below.

Ukiyo-e are wood block prints and paintings. The signatures only tell who the designer of the print is and aren’t hand written. They are usually rakkan in red ink.

Swords, if they are signed, will be signed on the tang. There are some cases where the signature will be above the fitted handle and visible when the sword is fully fitted out.

Tsuba, sword guards, if they are signed, will be signed on the back.

The mark on a metal box.

The mark on a metal bell from the Heian era.

Metal items like kama for the tea ceremony will as often as not have an accompanying tomobako that is signed and acts as a guarantee of provenance. The box will often be in very poor condition. It is seen as a record of provenance and should be treated as such.

Cast copper or brass will often have a cast signature or a signature done after the initial casting.

There are problems with the signatures on lacquer ware. Often, pieces were signed as a sign of respect for an accomplished artist. In other cases the piece would be signed, but the signature stood more for the family lineage than for the individual. Still, you will see letters that tell the period the lacquer was made.

A piece of Japanese lacquer wear with a year signature.

Ceramics are rarely signed on the front; they are usually marked on the back. Oftentimes, they come with an accompanying box. The box is the same as with other tomobako in Japan. It often doubles the price, since it is considered a record of sorts.

There are thousands of signatures and motifs that act almost as timeline signatures. A certain motif was used for a very set period of time and almost never after that. The gobenka, a five-leafed flower, is an example of such a motif.

The Chenghua mark for Ming-period porcelain.

The mark on a piece of “Ming” porcelain made in Japan.

The gobenka, a five-leafed flower, was used as a mark to indicate a certain time frame.

A modern fake kakiemon mark.

Kamajirushi are another example of a type of motif that is used to identify pieces in a timeline and location. The word kamajirushi breaks down as “kama,” which means kiln, and “jirushi,” which means seal. Kamajirushi originated with large, communal kilns. Several workshops shared one kiln and in order to identify who put what in the kiln, a unique mark was used by each workshop. The earliest kamajirushi are very basic. As time went on and workshops hived off from the parent shop, a mark would be added and subsequently the marks became more elaborate.

A list of kamajirushi—or kiln marks—that help determine the maker and the time in which pottery or china was made.

The three most common copies of Chinese signatures are for the Ming Jia-Jing reign and the Ming Cheng Hua reign. Another common copy found in Japan is a four-character mark that reads in Chinese as the name of the peony and rose.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.


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